To God Alone Be the Glory

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on November 26, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

 

Imagine this: You run into someone you haven’t seen in several years. It’s a younger man, perhaps a distant cousin, or someone you went to school with, or the kid who grew up down the street. At any rate, you haven’t seen him in years, and now you find out he’s been home for Thanksgiving and you catch up a bit. You ask him what he’s doing these days. He says that he’s become an actor. He now lives in Los Angeles. And he’s starring in a new movie that’s coming out in December. You might have heard of it. It’s called Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He says he’ll be home again for Christmas and, if you see the movie, he’d love to hear what you think of it.

So, you go see the movie when it comes out. It’s a Star Wars movie, which means you wanted to see it anyway, but now you’re really interested in seeing it because the kid you knew from back in the day is starring in it. You watch the opening scenes and don’t see him yet, but you figure that perhaps he plays a character who enters the story a bit later. Halfway through the movie, you haven’t spotted his face yet, but perhaps he makes a dramatic appearance in the last act of the movie. But he doesn’t. And as the closing credits play, you begin to think that you made a mistake about which movie he was starring in, or perhaps he just lied to you.

About a month later, around Christmas, you see him again. He asks you, “What did you think about the movie? How was I?” And you say, “You were in Star Wars, right?” He says, “Of course.” And then, after an awkward pause, you say, “I saw the movie, but I didn’t see you in it.” And he says, “Of course you saw me. I was one of the stormtroopers.” In case you don’t know, stormtroopers are the soldiers who work for the bad guys. They wear helmets, so you can’t see their faces. You say, “Well, which stormtrooper were you?” And he says, “I was the one in the back row of that scene.” You say, “Oh. Yeah, that was great.”

You’re trying to be polite, so you tell him you enjoyed the movie, but you’re puzzled. Why did he say he starred in the movie? This question starts bugging you, so you ask him. He says, “Well, honestly, I thought the movie was going to be more about me. When I told you I starred in it, I hadn’t seen the movie yet. But I was on set for a few days, and there were cameras all around, and I figured the movie was really about me.” Again, you’re trying to be polite, so you just say, “Well, perhaps next time it will be.”

But you’re still puzzled. Why would anyone in their right mind think that just because he played one of many stormtroopers in a cast of hundreds of people, that he was playing the starring role? How could anyone be so misguided, so conceited, so foolish?

But that’s how we are. In this great big story we call life, our time on screen is relatively short. Each of us has a significant role to play, but we’re just one of many people who grace the screen. Most of us will never play anything like a starring role. We’re more like the extra who appears briefly in the background. Yet too often we think that we play the starring role, that life is really about us. We act like everyone else is an actor in a movie about us. Yet, truly, the story of life is primarily about God. He plays the starring role. We play important roles that he has written for us, but he remains the star of the show.

The last of the five principles that came out of the Protestant Reformation, the one that binds them all together, is Soli Deo Gloria, or, “To God Alone Be the Glory.” When we talk about glorying God, we mean that we recognize that he is the star of the show. God is the only one worthy of worship. Ultimately, everything exists and is done for the glory of God.

Before I continue, I want to define “glory,” because it’s a term that we don’t hear a lot outside of religion. We do hear about it sometimes, like when people talk about an athlete or a team achieving Super Bowl glory. That generally means that by winning a Super Bowl, they have made a name for themselves, or they have reserved for themselves a place in the Hall of Fame. That’s not far from the biblical definition of “glory.” In the Bible, the word “glory” appears frequently in both Testaments. In the Old Testament, that word translates a Hebrew word that can mean “abundance, honor, glory,” or “riches/wealth,” or “splendor.”[1] That word is related to another word that means “heaviness” or “weight.”[2] So, the idea is that God is the richest, the most splendid, the weightiest being that exists. And as we come to recognize his greatness, God takes on more worth and weight in our lives.

In the New Testament, the Greek word that is translated as “glory” means “brightness, shining, splendor,” or “greatness,” or “fame, renown.”[3] The Greek verb that’s translated as “to glorify” means “to praise” or “to cause to have splendid greatness.”[4] So, when we talk about God’s glory, we’re talking about how great he is, how famous he is, how brilliant and splendid he is. And when we glorify God in our lives, we’re praising him, recognizing his greatness. And when God glorifies us, he causes us to be great. But we can only be glorified if God is first glorified in our lives.

The subject of God’s glory is a large one that’s hard to summarize in one sermon. But in order to get to the heart of what it means for God to be glorified, I want to turn to one passage in John’s Gospel. In chapter 17, shortly before Jesus is arrested and crucified, he prays to God the Father. This is commonly known as Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” because he acts as a priest, praying for his disciples.

Let’s begin by reading the first five verses:

1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.[5]

I want to begin with that last verse first. Jesus has always existed as the Son of God. As God, he is eternal. He has no beginning. Before the universe was created, he had always enjoyed unbroken fellowship with the other two Persons of the Trinity: God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Now, at this point in time, he asks for the Father to glorify him “with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”

I point this out because we need to understand that God is glorious by himself. He doesn’t need us to glorify him, but he chose to create us for that purpose (cf. Acts 17:24–25). God is intrinsically glorious and glorified. He is splendid and great, and the three Persons of the Trinity magnify or reflect or acknowledge the greatness of the other Persons. The Father proclaims how his Son pleases him, and his Son loves and obeys the Father.

And during his time on earth, when Jesus became the God-man, he glorified the Father on earth by obeying him, by doing all that the Father planned for him to do. In that way Jesus is the perfect human being. As a man, Jesus fulfills God’s designs for creation.

The big story of the Bible can be summarized in four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Each part of this story glorifies God.

First, creation exists for God’s glory. God created the universe for his glory. Psalm 19:1 famously says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The seraphim, the fantastic creatures that accompany the Lord in heaven, say in Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” God’s plan has always been for the earth to “be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

The opening chapters of Genesis show that God made the universe and specifically the Garden of Eden to be his temple, where he is glorified.[6] And God made people in his image, to reflect his greatness and glory.[7] God wants us to glorify him alone. He alone is worthy of our worship. He says, “My glory I will not give to another” (Isa. 48:11).

God sent his Son into the world because of the second part of the story, the fall, when human beings rebelled against God and fell into sin. It is mysterious why a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God would create human beings who would sin, but even sin glorifies God. We get hints of this in different parts of the biblical story. For example, one of the most important stories of the Bible is the exodus, when God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. It seems that God orchestrated the whole story—from Israel going into Egypt, to their being enslaved, to his dramatic redemption of the Israelites—in order to display his glory among the nations. Egypt was the most important nation in the world at that time, and there was no better place for God to show that he is the true God, as opposed to all the false gods the Egyptians worshiped. God showed that he, not Pharaoh, is the true King.

God did that first by hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the Israelites go (Exod. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). In one passage, God tells Moses,

You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Exod. 7:2–5).

The Egyptians would know that God is indeed the one true God because of what he would do. God told Pharaoh, “for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod. 9:16; Rom. 9:17). Pharaoh was responsible for his sin, yet God raised him for the purpose of displaying his power and glory. That gives us a hint of why there is sin in the world. The same is true when Jesus brings his friend Lazarus back to life. Lazarus was allowed to die so that God could display his power over death and therefore be glorified (John 11:4, 40).[8]

So, God is glorified in creation and God is glorified by the fall because he is more powerful than evil. He judges evil people and miraculously triumphs over evil. God is therefore glorified in judgment.

And God is glorified in salvation. That is why Jesus came. He most perfectly displays God’s glory. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, we’re told, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And when he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, he was glorified. That’s why Jesus says, at the beginning of his prayer in John 17, “glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” Earlier in the Gospel of John, his death is referred to has his hour of glorification (John 12:16, 23, 28; 13:31–32). It’s quite ironic that Jesus is most glorified, and he most glorifies the Father, by dying in a humiliating way. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals. It was a way of torturing and shaming enemies of the state. Jesus was not a criminal, he never sinned, but he was treated like a criminal so that all who trust in him can go free.

Jesus is most glorified in his death because he demonstrates his obedience to the Father and his love for his people. Who else would obey God unto death in that way? Who else would die for sinful people? God the Father is glorified in Jesus’ death because he sent his Son to be the one who absorbs his righteous, just wrath against sin. And the Father is worth obeying, even unto death. Father, Son, and Spirit are glorified in Jesus’ resurrection, because all take part in bringing Jesus back to life, showing God’s power of sin and death. In short, God is glorified in Jesus’ death and resurrection because only that saves sinful people. We are told time and again that the reason God saves us is for his glory.[9]

So, God is glorified in redemption. And he is glorified in those he has redeemed. Let’s see this by continuing with Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Let’s read verses 6–19:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Jesus taught the disciples who God is. He manifested the name of God to his disciples, which means he made clear God’s identity and character. God the Father gave certain people to Jesus, and Jesus taught them his word. Jesus prays for his people, not for the whole world, but for the ones the Father gave Jesus. And Jesus says that he is glorified in his disciples. Jesus keeps his disciples in the Father’s name, which means he keeps them in a right relationship with God. He guarded them. The only exception was Judas, who betrayed Jesus. And even Judas’ betrayal was a fulfillment of God’s plans.

Jesus asks the Father to sanctify his disciples. “Sanctify” means to make holy and pure. He asks the Father to “sanctify them in the truth.” And what is the truth? God’s word is truth. Jesus knows that they have been sent out into the world, just as he was sent into the world, to do the Father’s will. So, he asks the Father to protect them, to guard them, and to purify them.

Now, lest we think that Jesus was only praying for the apostles, he makes it clear that he prays for all his people. We see that in the last paragraph of his prayer. Let’s read verses 20–26:

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Jesus prays “also for those will believe in” him through the apostles’ word. He prays that his people will be one, as he and the Father are one. This unity among believers will be a sign to the world that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and God’s anointed one, the Christ. And, quite stunningly, Jesus says that the glory that the Father gave to him he gives to his people. We are glorified by being united to Jesus.

Jesus’ words show that God is glorified when people to come to faith in Jesus and join God’s family. At the beginning of the prayer, Jesus said that the Father gave him authority to grant eternal life to the ones the Father gives to Jesus to save. Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Knowing who God is and trusting in him glorifies God. Growing in our knowledge of God and growing in our obedience to God by being sanctified by his word glorifies him. Loving one another and being united in our faith glorifies God.

Faith, knowledge of God, obedience to God, and love for one another glorify God. Our praise and evangelism does, too. First Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” When we proclaim God’s excellencies, we are glorifying him. When we tell others about the One who brought us out of darkness and into light, they may also become part of God’s family. The apostle Paul said that “as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). When people are thankful that God saved them, they glorify God. When we see that God saved us not because of anything we’ve done, we should be thankful. We should praise God all the more.

I think that’s why this concept of Soli Deo Gloria, or “To God Alone Be the Glory,” ties together all the Reformation Principles. The first one we looked at was “Scripture Alone,” which says that only God’s written word, the Bible, is inerrant and infallible. It alone gives us knowledge of God that is true and doesn’t fail. Think of how this gives God glory. If we could figure out on our own what God is like and what he expects of us, we would be glorified for our cleverness. But God makes the wise of this world foolish by humbling them. God must reveal himself in order to be known truly and fully. The fact that he alone gives us this revelation brings glory to him, not us.

The second principle we looked at is “Grace Alone.” Salvation is a gift. It is not something we have earned. Even the act of faith is a gift (Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 1:29). The fact that “salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jon. 2:9) and not ourselves shatters our pride. But it brings glory to God, because God is merciful towards sinners and he graciously gives us salvation, which is something that we could never attain ourselves.

The principle we looked at is “Faith Alone.” We can only receive the gift of salvation. We cannot earn it. No amount of good works puts us in the right with God. Again, this humbles us. It shows that our sin is so pervasive that even our good works are tainted by selfish motives. But it glorifies God because it shows that he provided a way for us to be made right with him. He does the work for us.

And God did that work through the world’s only Savior, Jesus. “Christ Alone” is the fourth principle we have looked at. The fact that only a divine man can save sinful human beings humbles us. It shows us that no intellectual, no politician, no warrior, no scientist can save us. Only the perfect man, the God-man, can save us. Only he can give us God’s blessings. And this glorifies Jesus.

So, what the Protestant Reformation did was lower our view of ourselves and raise our view of God. Only God can reveal himself to us. Only God can save. Only God can do the work to save us, and he did that in the only Savior, Jesus.

Of course, we are not yet at the end of the story of the Bible. We live in a fallen world that doesn’t always seem so glorious. And many people today refuse to glorify God. They act as if they, or some other person, is the star of the show. But the last act of this great drama we’re in is called restoration, or consummation. That is when Jesus returns, when all the dead are raised back to life, when Jesus judges everyone who has ever lived, and the world is turned into a paradise. When Jesus returns, everyone will know that Jesus is Lord, the true King. Some will bow their knees in worship. Others will bow in terror. But “every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).

When Jesus returns, according to the apostle Paul, he will pay “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). Paul continues by saying that those who are judged will suffer “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). Those who reject God will not see his glory and they will not be glorified. But Paul also says that Jesus comes “to be glorified in his saints” (v. 10) and that he prays for Christians to live lives worthy of their calling, “so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 12). Jesus will be glorified in his people, and they will be glorified in him. The only way to have true glory is not by winning a Super Bowl or an Academy Award or a Nobel Prize or an election. The only path to true glory is Jesus.

And when Jesus returns, we will be resurrected. We will have glorified bodies, bodies that can never die again. And the earth will be filled with the glory of God. The new creation is described as the New Jerusalem, a beautiful city that has “the glory of God” because it shines like a jewel (Rev. 21:11). And in that beautiful city, we’re told there will be no sun and moon, “for the glory of God gives it light” (Rev. 21:23).

So, we are part of the great story of God’s glory, but the story never will be primarily about us. To think so is to imagine that the sun revolves around you, instead of realizing that we actually revolve around the sun. The proper way to be part of this story is to trust Jesus, to realize that he is the King, and we are not, that God is God and we’re not, and to seek forgiveness for our sins through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. God is glorified when his grace is received and when people are transformed into his thankful worshipers.

If you’re here today and you aren’t trusting Jesus, following him and glorifying him, I would urge you to start now. Acknowledge that he is Lord and you’re not. Confess your sins, that you haven’t lived to glorify God. Ask for his forgiveness. Tell him you want to follow him and that you need his help. I would love to tell you more about what it means to be a Christian

Christians, Jesus is glorified in our evangelism. When we tell others about Jesus, regardless of how they respond, he is glorified. When we testify that Jesus is the Son of God who came to earth in the humble form of a man, lived the perfect life, died in place of sinners, and rose from the grave, his greatness is put on display.

God is also glorified by our growing in knowledge and love and obedience. When the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Philippi, he said this:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

We should grow in our love for God and for one another. We should grow in our knowledge of God and our ability to discern what lines up with God’s design and what doesn’t. We should grow in our purity and holiness, becoming more and more like Jesus. We should produce good fruit, because all of this is “to the glory and praise of God.”

Jesus told his disciples that God is glorified by our obedience. He said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). God is glorified when we put Jesus’ words into practice, bearing good fruit in our lives.

Jesus is glorified in worship. But he is most glorified when our focus is on him, not on our traditions or personal preferences. Worship is about acknowledging God’s worth, his greatness. It exists primarily for God, not for us. Yes, when we worship God, we benefit. But worship is not entertainment or something that exists to make us feel comfortable.

Often, when we talk about our experiences in worship, people start to talk about what they like. “I like that hymn.” “I like that song.” “I like the way he preaches.” Or, “I didn’t like that music.” “I didn’t like that sermon.” And so on. When we get hung up on our likes, we’re glorifying ourselves, not God.

This matters for our church because we need to reach out to younger generations. We want younger people to join us in worship. That means that older, more mature Christians are going to have to let go of their personal preferences in order to make younger generations feel more welcome here. That means we’ll sing songs that perhaps are not our favorites. That means changing how we worship. It never means changing what we believe or whom we worship. It never means changing God’s word. But we will continue to change the style of worship. I ask you this: what would glorify God more, having us hang on to our little traditions and our preferred worship style, or making a new generation of disciples? The church does not exist for our comfort. It is not a museum or some nostalgic show that reminds us of the “good ol’ days.” It exists for God’s glory.

We were made to glorify someone or something. And we will do that. We will glorify ourselves, or someone in our lives, or our favorite sports team, or someone or something else. Or we will glorify God. But here’s the thing: We will only be glorified when we glorify God. Someone who writes and stars in a one-person play that no one sees won’t get glorified. But if we gladly play our small role in God’s big story, we get to take part in the biggest, most glorious story of all time. And the glory of God will shine on us, so that we also will be glorious.

Notes

  1. “כָּבוֹד,” Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 458.
  2. “כְּבֵדֻת,” See ibid., 459.
  3. “δόξα, ης, ἡ,” William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 256–257.
  4. “Δοξάζω” in ibid., 258.
  5. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  6. See the sermon, “A Theater for His Glory,” preached on September 27, 2015, at https://wbcommunity.org/story-of-the-bible.
  7. See the sermon, “Image Bearers,” preached on October 4, 2015, at https://wbcommunity.org/story-of-the-bible.
  8. See the sermon, “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” It was preached on October 8, 2017 and is available at https://wbcommunity.org/why-do-bad-things-happen.
  9. See Ezekiel 36:22–32; Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14; Philippians 2:5–11.

 

 

To God Alone Be the Glory

Brian Watson preaches a sermon on the Protestant Reformation principle Soli Deo Gloria, “To God Alone Be the Glory.” The reason the universe and human beings exist is for God’s glory. The primary reason Jesus came to save us is for God’s glory. Our motivation should be to glorify God in all that we do. The primary text for this sermon is John 17.

Faith Alone

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on November 12, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon prepared in advance.

Today, we’re resuming our series on the five “solas,” the major theological principles of the Protestant Reformation. Many churches, writers, and Christian organizations celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, which is supposedly the day when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It’s debated whether Luther nailed these to the church door, but we do know that on that date, he posted a letter containing the Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. These theses were short statements protesting the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse of indulgences, which supposedly help shorten people’s time in purgatory. These were being sold, with the promise that the money could free the dead from purgatory and into heaven. At any rate, the Theses didn’t get to Albrecht until the end of November. So, it’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation even now. And, as we’ll see, these principles are always relevant.

One of those principles is “faith alone.” We are reconciled to God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That means that salvation is a gift. It cannot be earned. It can only be received by faith, by trusting in the only one who can save us, Jesus. It is his work on our behalf that puts us in the right with God, so that God is for us and not against us.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was a monk, a priest, and a university professor, and his theology was undergoing a massive change. Prior to 1517, he had been wracked with guilt and he doubted whether he stood in the right with God. According to a recent biography of Luther, “There was in medieval Christian life the strong implication that if one could not earn one’s salvation outright, one could certainly go a long way toward earning it, and one had better do what one could.”[1] This was Luther’s mindset. He wanted to be sure he did everything he could to earn God’s favor. So,

Luther’s overactive mind was constantly finding ways in which he had fallen short, and so every time he went to confession, he confessed all of his sins, as he was supposed to do, but then, knowing that even one unconfessed sin would be enough to drag him down to hell, he racked his brain for more sins and found more. There was no end to them if one was honest about one’s thoughts, and Luther was entirely honest.[2]

Luther seemed some kind of unprecedented moral madman on a never-ending treadmill of confession. Instead of looking upward and outward toward the God who loved him, he zealously and furiously fixated on himself and his own troubling thoughts.[3]

That kind of anxiety over sin might seem foreign to many of us. I think most people go through life without thinking of sin too much. I suppose that’s because we don’t think of God as much as Luther did. I don’t know may people who would argue that the world was better five hundred years ago, but it was better in one way: people had an awareness of the existence of God and the problem of sin. In our modern world, it seems we have little room for God.

It’s only when certain things happen in our lives that we start to wonder about the wrong things we’ve done and where we stand with God. It may be when a loved one dies, and we think about our own death. It may be at a funeral. It may be in the middle of a dark night of the soul, when we’re tired and can’t sleep, and all our failures come to mind. It may be a rare moment of introspection when we think about what our lives amount to. In these moments, we may wonder if our lives mean anything. We may wonder if we are worthy. We may wonder if God loves us, if he will accept us as his children. We may wonder what will happen when we die.

Just yesterday, I was in Bridgewater at the Veteran’s Day parade. I happened to pass the funeral home and saw some of the people who work there. (They were outside giving out doughnuts and coffee.) The director of the home said they were doing some “community relations” and that business had been slow lately, because “they come in waves.” I said, “but they come in the end,” meaning they will always have business because everyone dies.

Now, back to Martin Luther. During this period of his life, he started to teach at the University of Wittenberg. He spent years teaching through the Psalms, the book of Romans, and the book of Galatians. During this time, he had a breakthrough. He realized that we are not acceptable to God because we confess all our sins to a priest and do numerous good works to work off our sin. In 1517, while wrestling with his guilt and his fear of—and even hatred for—God and his righteous judgment, Luther realized the apostle Paul’s message, that “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4; quoted in Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). Luther later recalled, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”[4]

Luther came to this realization while studying the book of Romans, and this message was confirmed when he studied and taught Galatians. I think it is easiest to see this message in the book of Galatians, so we’ll turn there this morning.

The apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians to a church that he helped start on one of his missionary journeys. He preached to them the good news that we can be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus. If we trust that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and the world’s only Savior, and we trust only in his work to save us, then we are justified, or declared “in the right,” by God. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are no longer guilty of sin, and we are credited with all that Jesus did as the only perfectly righteous human being who has ever lived. This is what Paul taught. But the Galatians seemed to doubt this message. They turned to false teachers who claimed that they must have faith plus works in order to be saved.

In the first chapter, Paul writes,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6–9).

Those are strong words. He says to this church, “You’re turning to false teachers who are teaching a different message. There’s only one gospel and they’re not teaching it. I don’t care if an angel tells you something different. To hell with him if he does. And even if I come and tell you a different message, well, to hell with me.”

In chapter 2 of Galatians, Paul makes it clear that the only way to be reconciled to Jesus is by having faith in him. This is what he writes in verses 15 and 16:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul doesn’t mean that Jews aren’t sinners. He says, “Gentile sinners,” because that’s the way Jewish people like him would have looked at Gentiles. Paul means, “We’ve all sinned against God. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. It’s not an ethnic problem we have, it’s an ethic problem. We’ve all done wrong and God knows it! And the only way we can survive God’s judgment is to trust in the one solution he gave us, which is Jesus.

That’s seems pretty clear to me, but there are some theologians who think that the phrase “works of the law” doesn’t refer to the law in general, or to doing good works in general. They think it refers specifically to Jewish religious rites like circumcision, observing the Sabbath, and eating only certain foods. Those were boundary markers that kept Gentiles out of Israel. They think that Paul isn’t saying that good works don’t factor into what is called justification. (Justification is a term that comes from the law court. If you’ve been accused of a crime and a judge finds that you’re innocent, you are justified, pardoned, declared innocent.)

So, the question is, are we “in the right” with God because of Jesus’ work on our behalf, received by faith, or is God for us because of our faith plus something else?

I think Paul is clear that God is for us and not against, that we are adopted into his family, that we are united to Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit not because of anything that we’ve done, but because of God’s grace. We receive the gift of salvation by faith alone. We see that in chapter 3 of Galatians.

Let’s read the first nine verses of that chapter:

1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Paul calls them foolish because they turned away from the true gospel. When he says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified,” he doesn’t mean that the Galatians actually saw Jesus die on the cross. They were a long way in time and place from Jerusalem. Paul means that his preaching portrayed Jesus as God’s anointed one, sacrificed on the cross for sin. Jesus laid down his own life at the cross, and when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant it. There is nothing to add to Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death.

Then Paul asks them some rhetorical questions. The point is that the Galatians didn’t receive the Holy Spirit by “works of the law,” nor were they growing in their faith by those works, nor were miracles performed in their midst because of those works. All the benefits of Christianity came through faith. And this has always been the case. Just as it was for Abraham, so it is for all of God’s people. We are considered righteous in God’s sight because we trust him and his promises. Now that Jesus has come, we must trust Jesus, the Son of God, the one who is truly God and truly man. God’s plan was always to bless the nations through the true son of Abraham, Jesus.

Then, in the next few verses, Paul makes it clear why we cannot earn salvation through our efforts. Let’s read verses 10–14:

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Paul presents a logical reason why we cannot be justified by works. He says that all who rely on works are under a curse. That is, they’re condemned. Why is that the case? He quotes a verse from the law, Deuteronomy 27:26, which says that if the Israelites failed to do everything written in the law, then they would be cursed. Deuteronomy was written right before the Israelites entered into the Promised Land. At the end of the book, there are promises of blessings and curses. If they obeyed God, they would live and be blessed. If they disobeyed, they would be cursed and would perish. Paul’s implied point is that the Israelites failed to obey all the law.

And I think the implication is that if Gentiles were given this law, they would fail, too. It seems to me that the law given to Israel was a particular expression of God’s moral law. The Ten Commandments are representative of God’s moral law (Deut. 5:1–21). Worshiping idols, dishonoring parents, coveting, stealing, and lying are all wrong and we’ve all broken these commandments. We may not have murdered someone or committed adultery, yet Jesus tells us that hating someone and lusting after someone are like killing a person and committing adultery, because these things reveal problems in our hearts (Matt. 5:21–30). We’re all guilty.

What Paul doesn’t explicitly say here is that God requires the perfect obedience of a covenant partner. That is, if we’re going to have fellowship with God, we need to be perfect. And, clearly, we’re not. I don’t have time to explain covenant theology right now, but the idea is that God wants humans to relate to him through covenants, and humans are represented by covenant heads. All merely human covenant heads—Adam, Noah, Abraham, David—are not perfectly obedient. Israel covenanted with God, but they were disobedient, too. All these covenant partners broke covenant with God.

You may wonder why God requires perfection. The answer is that God is too pure to dwell with evil. Sin, or evil, corrupts and destroys. Yet God is holy, perfect, and pure. He cannot allow his special presence to coexist with the corrupting power of sin. As David said,

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you (Ps. 5:4; see also Hab. 1:13).

God requires perfect obedience and if we are going to trust in our own efforts, we need to be perfectly obedient. That’s why Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5, which says, “if a person does them [God’s “statutes and rules”], he shall live by them.”

Paul also says that God’s people have always been saved by faith. Abraham was credited righteousness because of his faith (Gen. 15:6). And “the righteous shall live by faith,” (Hab. 2:4). The Old Testament’s witness on justification is that it comes by trusting God and his promises. So, the righteous can live by perfect obedience or faith. Those are the options. And our sinful desires will not allow us to take the first option. And, if we try to take it, it shows that we don’t trust God’s provision. That is why Paul can say “the law is not of faith.”

If you’re tracking with me, you may wonder how that works. You may think, “That doesn’t make sense.” Or, in the words that my seven-year-old son likes to say these days, “It’s not fair!” How is that that disobedient people can be declared innocent, as if they have done the right thing and not the wrong? Shouldn’t we at least try to earn our standing with God?

Those questions are good ones to ask. As for that second question, I already said that our trying to earn God’s favor is bound to fail because we don’t do what is right. Even if we started right and now and had a perfect record from here on out, we would have to do something about our past failures. Our current efforts cannot erase our past sins. And even if we did the right thing now, our sinful character guarantees that we do things for the wrong reasons, or for the wrong motivations. For example, we may give to the poor in order to look generous or altruistic. As Isaiah 64:6 says,

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

As to that first question—how can guilty people be declared innocent—Paul gives us the answer. He says that Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law—if we have faith—by becoming a curse for us. In other words, Jesus took our condemnation for all who trust in him. Paul quotes one more verse from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 21:23, to demonstrate this truth. In that passage, we’re told that a person who has been given the death penalty for sin and has been hanged on a tree is cursed by God. Apparently, the perpetrator was made an example of, which is why he would be hanged. Paul takes this little bit of information and shows that Jesus, by being crucified on a “tree,” a piece of wood, not only took our curse but became a curse. God regarded him as our sin and Jesus was condemned in our place. Jesus was crushed so that we don’t have to be. This was the Father’s will and the Son’s will.[5]

The point is that God can declare the guilty just because Jesus took their penalty and paid it in full. Not only that, but Jesus gives us his perfect obedience, his righteousness. Only Jesus, the perfect God-man, kept covenant with God. He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled God’s law and God’s design for humanity. Yet, as Paul says, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus, God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was regarded as sin and he died—and rose from the grave, showing he paid our penalty in full. And we are regarded as God’s righteousness, as having his perfect moral character. This has been called “the great exchange.”

It is also called the “sweet exchange” in an early Christian document, probably from the second century, called The Epistle to Diognetus. This is part of that letter:

He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, “the just for the unjust,” the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners![6]

There’s another way of expressing this truth. When we are united to Jesus, we are his bride and he is our bridegroom. Of course, this is a metaphor. Our relationship to Jesus is only analogous to the way a bride relates to a groom, and there are limits to analogies. But I think it’s true to say that when two people get married, they share all their lives together. Jesus, though sinless, takes on our sin; and we, though sinful, take on his righteousness.

When Kathy and I married, she had debt and I was blessed to have inherited money from my grandparents. One of the first things I did was pay off her debt. Her debt was erased; she had equal share to my money. But here’s where the analogy starts to break down. When I paid off Kathy’s debt, I had less money. But when Jesus pays off our debt, he doesn’t have less righteousness. Because Jesus is not only man, but also God, he’s infinite. He can pay for an infinite amount of sin and he never loses any righteousness. His righteousness knows no end and can be credited to a multitude.

I think the idea of union with Christ and the picture of a marriage help us to understand the nature of faith. If you’re married, did you earn your spouse’s love? I think it would be strange if you said yes. You were the object of your spouse’s love because, well, he or she loved you. Love is hard to explain that way. When you entered that relationship, you received that love. You didn’t work for it. If you loved this person in return, you trusted this person enough to marry him or her. And when you have that kind of trust and love, your life changes. Again, this is just an analogy, but it helps us understand the personal nature of faith.

And it helps us to understand that the object of our faith matters. We can’t have a generic “faith.” Sometimes people talk about their faith. They say, “She has great faith,” “I’m relying on my faith,” and things like that. But our faith doesn’t save us. The object of our faith can—if it’s Jesus. We must have faith in the one who saves. We must be united to him. There is no other savior. There is no other person who is perfectly righteous for us and who takes the punishment we deserve for us. Our faith is personal, and it must be in the only person who can save, Jesus.

Also, faith isn’t mere head knowledge. Yes, faith involves believing that what the Bible says about sin and salvation is true. It involves knowing that Jesus is the only Son of God, who is truly God and truly man, who lived a perfect, sinless life and atoning death, and who was raised to life on the third day for our justification. But faith is more than just knowing facts. Faith trusts a person. And real faith leads to action. Real faith will lead to obedience and good works. Those don’t save us. They don’t put us into a right relationship with God. But once we’re in that relationship, they will come quite naturally. Just as a healthy tree will bear fruit, a person who has been restored to spiritual health will produce spiritual fruit.

That’s why James, in his letter, says that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Then he goes on to say this, in James 2:18–24:

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Here’s what James means. Real faith isn’t believing some statements to be true. The demons know truths about God, but they’re not reconciled to him. Real faith leads to action. Abraham was credited righteousness because he believed. But that faith also led to obedience. This doesn’t mean Abraham was perfect, because he wasn’t. But his faith led him to do some very hard things. He was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, because God was testing him. (God didn’t actually require Isaac to be sacrificed, by the way. The story foreshadows that God’s only Son would be the sacrifice that God would provide.) This obedience demonstrated that he had true faith. In that way, Abraham was justified by works. We might say his faith was demonstrated to be true because he had some obedience to show for it.

But it’s important to say that our good works don’t add to our right standing with God. When we first believe in Jesus, we are completely justified. Our right standing is based on Jesus’ perfect work for us. And when we come to real faith in Jesus, we our transformed. We have the Holy Spirit. We are united to Christ. And this new status will inevitably lead to good works.

In the end, this isn’t any different from what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–9. Paul says that we were saved by grace through faith, and that this is a gift from God. We cannot boast about it. We can’t even regard faith as some wise choice that we made because that is part of the gift. But why were we saved? The next verse, Ephesians 2:10, tells us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We were saved to do good works. We should do them out of love and gratitude and trust.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the nature of faith, but I have to wrap things up for now. So, let me ask you to imagine something. Imagine your time has come. You have crossed the bar from life to death. And imagine that it’s Judgment Day. You are before God, and your life is now coming under God’s scrutiny. God is the Judge, and he is perfect. Because he’s all-knowing, he knows every bit of your life, all your thoughts, desires, words, and actions. He sees all the evidence and it’s clear you’re guilty. What will you offer in your defense?

This day will come for all of us, whether we’re Christians or not. So, what is your excuse? What is your defense? What is your plea? Will you protest and say that you’re innocent? Will you give excuses and try to justify why you did some wrong things? Will you shift the blame to others? Will you claim ignorance of God’s commands or inability to do them? If so, you don’t really understand the nature of God, human nature, and the problem of sin. I would invite you to take a more honest, more sober look at your own life. You can fool other people, or even yourself, but you can’t fool God.

Perhaps you won’t say you’re innocent. But instead of acknowledging that you have a debt that you could never repay, a guilt you could never work off, you boast about all the things you’ve done. You might say, “God, you can’t condemn me because I said I believed in Jesus and I was baptized at age 12. I repeated a prayer someone told me. And then I attended church every Sunday. I even gave ten percent of every little bit of income I ever had. Surely that means something, right?” If that is your posture, I would also invite you to reconsider how serious your sin is and how tainted your good actions are with bad motivations. I would also say that if you are trusting in your own efforts, you’re not a Christian.

Jesus told a parable about this. In Luke 18:9–14, he describes two men who come to the temple. One is a Pharisee, and when he prays, he simply boasts about how he’s obeyed the law. The other man was a tax collector, known for taking more than they should. And all he said in his prayer was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And this is Jesus’ verdict: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

That’s why this matters so much. If you trust your own efforts, you’re not trusting God’s provision. And, I would add, you don’t understand the truth about the depth of your sin and the insufficiency of your good works, whatever they are. You can’t be part of God’s family and kingdom if you don’t live by faith. No one here today can say they don’t understand this message of the gospel, the good news of Christianity, which says that sinners can be in the right with God by trusting his Son. Everyone here has heard that the only way to be right with God is through God’s grace, expressed in Jesus’ righteous life and atoning death, received by faith. Accept God’s grace by faith. You’ll never have a right standing with God if you think you can earn it.

Perhaps when you stand before God, you’ll rightly say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” You might say, “God, I know I rebelled against you. I have done more wrong things than I even know. My only hope is Jesus. I know he is the Righteous One, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior. I know he died for my sins and rose from the grave for my justification. I have put my faith in him.” That is good. I hope we all can say something like that and mean it.

But what if God were to ask us, “How do I know you have faith?” How would you demonstrate that you have faith? In other words, what in your life are you doing that requires faith in Jesus? Being here is a good start. So many people who claim to be Christians aren’t committed to a local church, which simply makes no sense to me. Part of living by faith is submitting to the leadership of a local church and serving—and being served by—that body of believers. I think it takes faith to give generously to the church and to those who need. That shows that you’re willing to do with less in this life because you know being generous is good and right. Serving in the church takes faith, because we don’t always see the fruits of our efforts. Sometimes, we’re not thanked for what we do. It takes faith to stay in a marriage that doesn’t feel perfect. We do that because we know it’s right and ultimately good for us, and we hope and pray and work to make that marriage better. It takes faith to tell other people about Jesus, because they may reject us and call us names. It takes faith to deny yourself pleasures that other people indulge in. You trust that such things will ultimately harm you and those around you.

Many other things take faith. The point is that real faith cannot be separated from the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Real trust leads to real action. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and we are saved to do good works to the glory of God alone. May we all trust in Jesus only for salvation, and may our lives show that such faith is real.

Notes

  1. Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 43.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 47.
  4. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–1986), 34:337, quoted in Metaxas, Martin Luther, 96.
  5. Over two years ago I preached a sermon on Galatians 3:1–14. This sermon, “The Righteous Shall Live by Faith,” was preached on July 12, 2015 and is available at https://wbcommunity.org/galatians.
  6. Epistle to Diognetus 9:2–5, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 547–549.

 

Scripture Alone

The following sermon was preached on September 3, 2017 by Brian Watson.

MP3 sermon recording.

PDF of sermon typescript (not a transcript of the audio recording, but what Brian wrote in advance. The text also appears below.)

 

I don’t know how many of you have ever looked at the church’s business cards, but if you have, you may have noticed something strange on the back of the cards. If you turn one of those cards over, you’ll see a map of where the church building is located. That’s not the strange part. The strange part are some foreign words on the left-hand side of the card. There are five phrases written in Latin:

Sola Scriptura
Sola Gratia
Sola Fide
Solus Christus
Soli Deo Gloria

Underneath those phrases are English words that give us the meaning of those Latin words:

The Bible Alone
By Grace Alone
Through Faith Alone
In Christ Alone
For the Glory of God Alone

Why are those words there? Well, the simple explanation is that John Battenfield, who designed the church logo, designed these cards, and he decided to put those words on the back. The reason he did that is because he knows that I subscribe to them. The more important reason is that these phrases are principles that came out of the Protestant Reformation. They describe, quite briefly, what a faithful, biblical Christian faith looks like.

You may wonder, how can there be five “alones”? Shouldn’t there be only one? Well, they’re “alone” in five different senses. The Bible is the only written word of God. Since God is the greatest authority, and since his written word is an extension of his authority, the Bible is our authoritative knowledge of God, salvation, and how to live for God. In other words, our inerrant, infallible knowledge of God is not found in the Bible and tradition, but only in the Bible.

We are reconciled to God by grace alone. That means salvation is a gift. It is not grace plus merit; in other words, our salvation isn’t partly God’s gift and partly something we have earned. If salvation were 99 percent gift and one percent our work, you can be sure we would mess that one percent up.

The way we receive that gift of salvation is by faith alone, not faith and works. Even our faith is a gift from God. The one who is reconciled to God is reconciled only on the basis of trusting God entirely for salvation. It’s true that a real faith will lead to good works, but those good works don’t add to our salvation.

We are reconciled to God in Christ alone. Jesus is the only mediator between God and sinful humans. There is no other savior.

And everything exists, ultimately, for the glory of God alone.

Those are principles of true, biblical Christianity that were recovered during the Protestant Reformation. And this year is the five hundredth anniversary of an event that is, at least symbolically, the beginning of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a German monk, priest, and university professor named Martin Luther (1483–1546), nailed a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This document was his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which are short statements against what he perceived to be the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was bothered by the sale of indulgences. The Catholic Church teaches that indulgences can reduce the amount of time that someone spends in purgatory after death. A Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences in order to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Apparently, Tetzel claimed that giving money to this cause could cover all sins. He encouraged people to buy indulgences for their dead relatives, using this sales pitch: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”[1]

Luther knew that this was contrary to what Scripture taught. In the years leading up to 1517, Luther had been studying and teaching the text of the Bible, particularly books like Romans and Galatians. He came to realize that the Bible taught that our right standing with God comes through grace by way of faith. It is a gift of God, given to undeserving sinners, and it is received by trusting God’s promises.

So, Luther realized that what the Catholic Church taught about salvation, and what it was doing through the sale of indulgences, was wrong. He protested by writing his Ninety-Five Theses. Among the theses, we find statements like these:

27. Those who assert that a soul straightway flies out (of purgatory) as a coin tinkles in the collection-box, are preaching an invention of man.[2]

53. They are the enemies of Christ and of the people who, on account of the preaching of indulgences, bid the word of God be silent in other churches.[3]

54. A wrong is done to the word of God when in the same sermon an equal or a longer time is devoted to indulgences than to God’s word.[4]

79. It is blasphemy to say that the cross adorned with the papal arms is as effectual as the cross of Christ.[5]

80. Bishops, curates and theologians who allow such teaching to be preached to the people will have to render an account.[6]

In his statements, Luther didn’t outright reject the Catholic Church. But he thought that some of its practices were contrary to what is in the Bible, and therefore should be corrected.

Luther sent his protests to Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz, who sent them to Rome. Within a few weeks, his theses had spread throughout Europe. As you can imagine, Luther got in trouble with the Church. (One must keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church was the church of Europe.) In 1520, the Pope said Luther would be excommunicated unless he recanted. Luther burned the Pope’s letter. The Pope then issued another statement of excommunication at the beginning of 1521 and called the Emperor, Charles V, to put it into effect. The Emperor desired to hear from Luther and gave him one more chance to recant. So, an imperial assembly was convened in the city of Worms. At the end of that assembly, Luther said these words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.[7]

Luther, fearing he would be put to death for heresy, then hid in the Wartburg Castle in Wittenberg. While there, he translated the New Testament into German. Prior to this time, the only available translation of the Bible was the Latin Vulgate, which was 1,100 years old. Luther wanted to have the Bible available in the language that people could read and understand. Later, he supervised a translation of the entire Bible, which was finished in 1534. It is estimated that half a million copies of this Bible were distributed by the time of Luther’s death in 1546.[8]

Luther was not alone. Others wanted to go back to the Bible to rediscover what God had spoken. William Tyndale translated most of the Bible into English before he was executed in 1536. Yes, it was illegal to translate the Bible into the vernacular language. Only some Reformers gave their lives, but all shared the same concern. They wanted to recover true Christianity by going back to the source, the Bible. Why would these people risk their lives to translate the Bible into their own languages and to oppose the doctrines of the Catholic Church? They did this because they knew that the words of the Bible are life-giving and vital. They knew what a treasure Scripture is, and they gave their lives to hear from God in his written word.

They also had concerns about what the Church was teaching in their day. Their concerns were captured by Luther, who wrote the following in a 1521 treatise titled The Misuse of the Mass: “The saints could err in their writings and the sin in their lives, but the Scriptures cannot err.”[9] Luther recognized that the Bible alone is God’s written word, whereas the writings of all the theologians throughout history were not God’s word. God doesn’t make mistakes or lie, but human beings can be mistaken. Therefore, all our true knowledge of God should be based on the Bible, not on the writings of theologians. Of course, the writings of theologians may be helpful insofar as they rightly interpret Scripture. Luther, Calvin, and others often referred to earlier theologians like Augustine. But they knew that theologians could be wrong, and that is why we need to keep coming back to the Scriptures, to make sure that our knowledge of God is accurate.

So, this year, we celebrate the Reformation. And this isn’t just some interesting history. This is always relevant. As long as we need to hear from God and need to know how to be reconciled to him, this issue will be relevant. As long as we wonder how we can rightly live for God, this issue will be relevant.

We are bombarded with so many messages, so many words, and so many voices. How do we know whom to trust? How do we know who is telling the truth? How do we hear from God?

I can’t answer this question fully this morning, but I want to give a brief overview of Sola Scriptura by looking at a few passages in the Bible. First, let us turn to the book of Hebrews, in the New Testament. I’ll read the first four verses of the first chapter.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.[10]

We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. But whoever wrote it, he wanted us to know that Jesus is superior to all angels, prophets, and priests. The covenant he inaugurated, the “new covenant,” is superior to the old covenant made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. Jesus is God’s fullest and final revelation of himself.

I want to make a few observations about those verses. First, it says that God spoke. God is not silent. The God who made the world and everything in it has spoken. This is good news. God did not create the universe only to allow us to guess at meaning and truth. He has spoken, and we can know him.

Second, God has spoken “at many times and in many ways.” God hasn’t spoken just once, but multiple times. He spoke audibly to some people, like Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, among others. Sometimes, he spoke to people through dreams and visions.

Third, God has spoken “to our fathers by the prophets.” From the author’s perspective, this means that God spoke the Old Testament through prophets, men such as Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. God did speak directly to some people, but more often than not, God spoke through prophets. He spoke through their writings.

This is something that the apostle Peter mentions in his second letter. After describing his experience of Jesus’ transfiguration, when Jesus appeared in his glory as the Son of God and when he heard the audible voice of God the Father, Peter says this:

19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19–21).

When Peter refers to the “prophecy of Scripture,” he seems to be referring back to the Old Testament, which predicted Jesus’ coming. He says that this Scripture was not produced by men. He means that they didn’t simply invent whatever they wrote. No, they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” How this works, we don’t really know. What it means is that God didn’t simply dictate what he wanted written. He worked through these prophets, carrying them along to write what he wanted written. But he did this in concert with their own experiences, ideas, and cultural references. So, we can say that the Bible has dual authorship. The letters of Paul are really Paul’s letters. But they’re also God’s word, because God had Paul write exactly what he wanted written, without turning Paul into a mindless writing machine.

So, the Old Testament is the result of God speaking at many times and in many ways to the prophets, who wrote down what the Holy Spirit guided them to write. What about the New Testament?

The author of Hebrews says that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” There’s a lot of meaning packed into those two words. Jesus is God’s Son, and, as the next verse says, he is “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” He is a perfect representation and revelation of God the Father. And Jesus is the creator of the world, so he is clearly God himself. Jesus is the fullest and clearest revelation of God. That’s why John calls Jesus “the Word” at the beginning of his Gospel (John 1:1–18).

If that is true, then we must think about this: the only reason we know Jesus is because of the writings of the apostles and those who wrote down the testimony of the apostles. Apostles like Matthew and John wrote Gospels, biographies of Jesus. Others like Peter, Paul, and James wrote letters. Mark wrote a Gospel based on Peter’s recollections. Luke wrote a Gospel and the book of Acts based on eyewitness testimony, and we know he was familiar with Paul. In the book of Ephesians, Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Jesus is the cornerstone of the church, the one who determines the church’s size and shape. The apostles and prophets who wrote the New Testament are the foundation, and the foundation is laid once. All our theology is built on that foundation.

It’s interesting that we don’t have any words of Jesus written down within the first hundred-plus years after his death and resurrection other than the words we find in the Bible. We do have references to Jesus in non-biblical works.[11] But only in the Bible do we find Jesus’ words and only in the Bible do we find clear theological reflections in his life, death, and resurrection written by eyewitnesses. I don’t think this is an accident. I believe that God is in control of history, and that God reserves the right to be his own interpreter. The Bible is God’s written word. It is from God and it is primarily about God. If Jesus is the clearest revelation of God, it makes sense that God would want Jesus to be known clearly. He wouldn’t want confusing, competing versions of Jesus to be written. In order to know Jesus, the fullest revelation of God, we need to know the Bible.

But Jesus is also the final revelation of God. I think that’s what is intended when we read “in these last days.” In the New Testament, we have this idea of two ages: this age, and the age to come. In Matthew 12:32, when Jesus says that blaspheming the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, he says it won’t be forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come.” There are many references in the New Testament to “this age,” the age between Jesus’ first and second comings (Luke 20:34; 1 Cor. 1:20; 2:8; 3:18; Gal. 1:4; 1 Tim. 6:7). Judgement day will come at the end of “this age” (Matt. 13:39–40, 49; 24:3). And eternal life is found in “that age” (Luke 20:35) or “the age to come” (Mark 10:30). The New Testament says that the time between Jesus’ comings is the “last days” (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Pet. 3:3). And in this era, after the New Testament was written, there is no need for more revelation about Jesus. We know enough about Jesus to trust him and be reconciled to God and to live as God’s people.

I say that because some people may wonder why we should trust an “old book” that was completed over 1,900 years ago. Here’s my answer. First, if God wrote the book through human authors, and if God knows everything, including the future, and God is perfectly wise and good and never lies (Num. 23:19; 2 Tim. 2:13; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18), then it doesn’t matter how old the book is. Since God knows all times equally well, when he authored those words, he knew what would happen today. He knows what will happen in the future, too. So, it doesn’t matter when the words were written. Second, the Bible isn’t a book that is meant to describe all human history. It’s not a technical manual, a scientific textbook, a dictionary, or an encyclopedia.[12]

No, the Bible is a covenantal book. We even see that in the word “Testament,” which comes from the Latin word Testamentum, which means “covenant.” A covenant is a pact or agreement that describes how God relates to his people. God initiates covenants with people and makes promises to them. Covenants also make demands of God’s people. The Old Testament describes the covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and the promise of the New Covenant. Most of the Old Testament concerns Israel under the “old covenant” made through Moses at Mount Sinai. That covenant demanded obedience to God’s law. Failure to obey would separate people from God.

The New Testament concerns the “new covenant,” which was made through Jesus’ death on the cross (Matt. 26:27–28). There will not be a “newer covenant.” The new covenant promises forgiveness of sins, transformation through the Holy Spirit, and real, personal knowledge of God (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). It is based on Jesus’ perfect obedience, because he perfectly fulfilled God’s law for us. There is nothing better than the new covenant. There is no new information we need to be part of God’s covenant people. We know enough about Jesus to trust that he lived the perfect human life (the kind that we should but can’t live because of our sin), that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin (because sin must be punished and removed from God’s creation), and that he rose from the grave as a promise that God will someday resurrect the world and his people. We will then live with Jesus forever in a perfect world.

The Bible describes God’s great acts of salvation. Many theologians say that the Bible is about redemptive history. It tells of great and significant events like the creation of the world and of human beings, of the rebellion of humans against God and our fall into sin, of God making covenants and promises, of God bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, and of Israel’s continued sin. And then it tells us about God sending his Son to redeem a people of his choosing. Anyone who turns from sin and trusts in Jesus is part of that people, whether they walked this earth millennia ago or whether they walk the earth right now. The terms are the same: we must have faith in Jesus.

The next great saving act in redemptive history will be Jesus’ second coming. We’re given some information about that in the Bible. So, there is nothing to add to the Bible. In “the age to come,” we’ll be with Jesus in eternity, and then we can hear directly from him.

My point so far is that God has spoken through prophets, and he has spoken through his Son, and we know his Son through the apostles. If we want to hear God, we must read (or hear) the Bible.

There’s one more passage I want to look at, a quite famous one. It shows us what the purpose of the Bible is. Let’s turn to 2 Timothy 3:10–17. This is part of the apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Clearly, Paul wants Timothy to know that he has been honest in his dealings, even suffering persecution, in order to live a godly life. He also wants Timothy to know that there are deceitful people who deceive others. He tells Timothy to continue in the faith that he has learned, which he learned from “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” He’s surely referring to the Old Testament, because that’s what Timothy would have known as the sacred writings. The New Testament was in the process of being written. But Timothy would have regarded Paul’s gospel message as on the same level as the Old Testament, because that gospel message told him about Jesus.

And then Paul tells Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God.”[13] God breathed out the words of the Bible. He sounded the words through the instruments of the human authors of the Bible, the way a trumpet player blows through a trumpet to produce music. The Bible is God’s sounding to mankind. And what does it do? Besides making people wise for salvation, it teaches us, it corrects us, and it equips to do good work for God. This is what the Bible does. If we want to be reconciled to God, know him truly, be taught and equipped and even corrected by him, we need to read the Bible.

Sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone,” simply means that only the Bible is God’s written word. It doesn’t mean that we should only read the Bible. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only source of truth. We can and should read other books. We should learn about God’s creation by reading books about history, science, philosophy, and even novels that artfully capture something of the human condition. But we should never confuse those books—or any other words—with the Bible. The Bible is ultimately the work of a God who knows all things and who never lies. All other words are the products of finite human beings who don’t know all things and can and do make mistakes, whether they are honest or dishonest mistakes.

This is what one theologian, David Broughton Knox, says about the Bible:

“The canon [of the Bible] then is a very simple concept. It is putting into one classification or pigeon-hole those writings of which God is the Author, and putting into the other pigeon-hole all other writings which people have written-with a greater or lesser degree of truth—but which were not written by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit to convey God’s mind and Word to the reader, and are consequently not authoritative over the conscience.”[14]

Only God’s words are ultimately authoritative. Great works of literature can be inspiring and even illuminating, but they are not authoritative or inerrant. The words of family, friends, professors, or other so-called experts are not completely true and wise. The words of historians, even if not in error, aren’t normative. They can tell us what happened, but they can’t tell us what should have happened.[15]

Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean that we don’t need teachers. After all, the Bible says that we need pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). So, this concept doesn’t mean we as individuals study the Bible alone. We need to read the Bible in community. But even teachers can be mistaken, and their words need to be checked against the Bible (Acts 17:10–11).

My question for us is, do we read the Bible? Are we letting God speak to us? Do we trust that it is the only inerrant, divinely inspired, authoritative word that can bring us to a saving knowledge of God? Do we trust that it is God speaking to us to teach us and correct us? If we understand that the Bible is God’s word and that God is perfect, we will understand that the Bible can and will correct us, since we are not perfect. That’s what understanding means. We stand under the Bible. We don’t stand over it in judgment, determining what is right and what is wrong, deciding what is truth and what is lie. As one theologian says, “[C]orrect interpretation requires that we must submit ourselves to the Bible’s interpretation of us.”[16]

Toward the beginning of the Bible, we read of a deceiver, a mysterious serpent, who approaches the first woman, Eve. What are the first words out of this deceiver’s mouth? “Did God actually say . . .?” (Gen. 3:1). That question is alive today. I have already read from 2 Peter and 2 Timothy. Many biblical scholars believe that these letters weren’t written by Peter and Timothy, but were written in their name. They try to convince us that the Bible doesn’t tell us the truth. I am familiar with their arguments and I believe they are wrong. Their arguments are weak, built almost entirely on speculation. In fact, in seminary I wrote a 40-page paper on the authorship of 2 Peter, and I’m convinced that it is indeed the work of Peter. I think people attack these books of the Bible because they stress the importance of right belief and they highlight the work of false teachers.

Some people believe the Bible is somehow God’s word and should be authoritative (on some level), but that it also contains errors. In response to views like this, the theologian Matthew Barrett writes, “Because it is God speaking—and he is a God of truth, not error—his Word must be true and trustworthy in all that it addresses. . . . Should Scripture contain errors, it is unclear why we should trust Scripture as our supreme and final authority.”[17] He also writes, “Repeated attacks on Scripture’s own character reveal the enmity and hostility toward the God of the Bible within our own souls.”[18]

Attacking the authority of Scripture or questioning the truth of Scripture was not how Jesus approached the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. When that ancient deceiver, Satan, tempted Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus answered him by quoting Scripture (Matt. 4:1–11/Luke 4:1–13). One of those Old Testament verses that Jesus quoted was, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). Jesus called the Old Testament the “word of God” (Matt. 15:6; John 10:35). He said that he didn’t come to abolish the Scriptures, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He said the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). We can’t pick and choose which ones we pay heed to. Jesus said that all Scripture points to him (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39).

If we follow Jesus, we must take his view of Scripture. We must stand under it, yield to it, submit to it, use it to ward off temptation, and listen to it so that we know how to live for God. Jesus came to speak the words of God the Father (John 7:16; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10, 24). He told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would lead them to know greater truth (John 14:26; 16:13–15). If we know Jesus, we will listen to the Father’s word, delivered by the Son and by the Holy Spirit through the prophets and apostles.

Let me end with more words from the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 1:22–25):

22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,

25  but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you.

Notes

  1. Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 35.
  2. Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 207.
  3. Ibid., 209.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 211.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 45.
  8. Ibid., 51.
  9. Ibid., 40.
  10. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  11. See the sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus,” December 14, 2014, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  12. Listen to the Bible study, “What the Bible Is and What the Bible Does,” https://wbcommunity.org/how-to-read-the-bible.
  13. Paul may very well have only the Old Testament in view, but he also recognizes that other New Testament writings were Scripture. In 1 Timothy 5:18, he quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, calling them both “Scripture.” Furthermore, in 2 Peter 3:15–16, Peter regards Paul’s letters as Scripture, for he talks about deceitful people who twist the meaning of those letters, “as they do the other Scriptures.”
  14. David Broughton Knox, D. Broughton Knox: Select Works, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God, ed. Tony Payne (Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media), 47, quoted in Graham A. Cole, “Why a Book? Why This Book? Why the Particular Order within This Book? Some Theological Reflections on the Canon,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 467.
  15. The naturalistic fallacy states that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” That is, just because something is the case doesn’t mean it ought to be the case. Similarly, we cannot derive an “ought” from a “was.” Just because something was the case doesn’t mean it ought to have been the case.
  16. Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 61.
  17. Ibid., 25.
  18. Ibid., 22.

 

Scripture Alone

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the Reformation principle known as Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone. How do we know God? How can we hear from him? God speaks to us through his Son, by his Spirit, through the writings of the prophets and apostles. Scriptures include Hebrews 1:1-4; 2 Peter 1:19-21; and 2 Timothy 3:10-17.